A judgment released by the High Court on Wednesday found that the jury awarded ‘excessive’ damages (a record $1.27 million) against Colin Craig v Jordan Williams. Judge Katz ruled:
The consequence is that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. The jury’s verdicts must therefore be set aside and a retrial ordered, unless both parties are willing to consent to my substituting a new damages award in place of the jury’s award. It is not possible to have a new trial solely on the issue of damages, as any assessment of damages must necessarily be based on the jury’s overall factual findings.
Just after that RNZ reported Craig’s reaction in $1.27m Colin Craig defamation damages ruled excessive:
Mr Craig said he was relieved at the miscarriage of justice finding and the judge’s ruling was “bang on”.
“The only correct course coming out of that trial last year was to in fact rule it as a mistrial.
“The law has been properly exercised in this particular case.”
Mr Craig said what happened now was up to Mr Williams, as he would not be agreeing to any new damages.
“The fact of that matter is Mr Williams simply hasn’t made his case against me yet. He is entitled to take this matter back to court. If he does I will defend myself.”
“This is really his decision to make. For me, I’m happy where things are right now.”
Colin Craig: In civil cases it’s straight forward, you have to pay for your legal defence and if you’re successful then you get costs against the other party.
But this is really up for him to decide. I mean he can also I guess appeal the judgment of the court.
So he has decisions to make, I’m sure he’ll let me know what those decisions are in due course.
These cases are very expensive to run. I think both Mr Williams and I have spent about a million dollars on this, so it’s a very big deal and we both see it as very important.
RNZ: Could you both just walk away from this though now?
Colin Craig: Well in terms of this case against me that’s a decision for Mr Williams, if he wishes to walk away he’ll walk away.
From my perspective now there are a couple of judgments that really do set out what happened, I feel that I’ve got most of the way there in what I’m trying to achieve.
RNZ: But would you and your family actively want to see this go further, to have a retrial?
Colin Craig: I would like to determine the final details, I mean we’ve got a lot of very helpful decisions from the court now on undisputed facts. There do remain some disputed facts.
I would like to get a final ruling on those, but not enough to want, absolutely demand there be a retrial. If Mr Williams walks away he walks away. I would accept that.
RNZ: Has this judgment given you pause for thought regarding a return to political life, to a political career?
Colin Craig: Well there’s a lot of, as you could imagine, a lot of positive feedback flowing in at the moment, you know, emails, texts, phone calls. And a lot of people are very keen that I should re-stand or put my name forward.
For me that would be premature at the moment. I think we still have to get tot the end of establishing the truth or otherwise of things that have been said, and at that point I think I can consider my options, and we’re not there yet.
Craig made it clear he wasn’t interested in the judge’s offer “to consent to my substituting a new damages award in place of the jury’s award” and that it was now up to Williams to decide what to do from here.
In response Jordan Williams’ lawyer was interviewed on RNZ: Williams’ solicitor responds to Craig defamation case
– “Jordon William’s solicitor says they won’t be going away and a re-trial is an option that the team are considering. John Langford says its not all about money, but it would be nice to get something out of what has been a very expensive piece of litigation.”
RNZ: So your client won’t get the $1.27 million. I hope he hasn’t spent it already.
[No damages will have been handed over yet.]
John Langford: I hope not. Well we don’t know what he’ll get.
Let’s just get this straight. Mr Craig was talking about getting to the truth of the matter. The decision yesterday really had nothing to do with the truth of of what was said at the trial, because the judge didn’t take away in any way the jury’s finding that Colin Craig defamed Jordan Williams.
It’s correct that the judge didn’t take away the finding that defamation did occur, but the judgment also made it clear that undisputed and established facts showed that Williams had attacked Craig over a period of time, and…
- “There was also undisputed evidence at trial that provided at least some support for a number of the other defamatory imputations pleaded, such as imputations that Mr Williams had been dishonest, deceitful, and could not be trusted.”
- “Mr Williams’ admitted breach of his undertaking to Ms MacGregor to keep her information and documents as confidential as if he were her lawyer”,
- “his claims that he had seen copies of “sexts” from Mr Craig to Ms MacGregor when he had not”,
- “Some of the allegations that Mr Williams made about Mr Craig, or that Mr Craig understood that he had made, were untrue, based on undisputed evidence at trial”,
- “the jury failed to take into account that several of the more serious defamatory imputations were true”,
and these were significant factors in finding that the jury award excessive to the extent of constituting a miscarriage of justice.
John Langford: The decision was mainly about the level of damages awarded, and having been at the hearing on the fifth of December. I could see that the judge was concerned about the level of damages and we were always at risk of losing that.
RNZ: Yes but the two things are linked though from the ruling. It says that in my view that fact that the jury awarded the full amount of damages sought by Mr Williams supports the inference that concluded that Mr Williams was entirely successful in his claim, or almost entirely successful, and it goes on to say he was not, and that several of the defamatory imputations he pleaded were proved to be true at trial. So there was some connection…
John Langford: …I think you mean untrue at trial. Anyway carry on.
RNZ: So there is a link between the degree of success and the damages awarded.
John Langford: Well we’ve been too successful. We were awarded a record level of damages. We were awarded…about the price of a house in Auckland. So now if you are plaintiff in a defamation case if you’re going to follow this decision you might be prudent not to claim a very large sum at all, or to tell the jury at the trial that you don’t want a big award, or otherwise you risk having the award set aside.
Any good defamation lawyer would know that claiming about 50% more then the current record when your case is unlikely to be seen as serious as that one by either an ordinary person or a judge, and that your client had acted quite poorly as well, then you risked having the claim overturned. If Judge Katz hadn’t ruled it excessive an appeal court is quite likely to have.
RNZ: You put it in the context of an Auckland house price, but the other context that was used in the ruling is that the previous highest ruling was $825,000 awarded to Michael Stiassny back in 2008, which was found to be the worst case of defamation it could find in the British Commonwealth, this is what the Court of Appeal said, yet this award was almost 50% higher. So perhaps your comparison with Auckland house prices isn’t quite as useful as that.
John Langford: I don’t know, I think back in the days of that Stiassny case the Auckland house prices were substantially lower, but anyway that’s just a…
RNZ: …the next step here is what is your client going to do.
John Langford: We’re going to have to decide but I’ll tell you one thing we’re not going to do, we’re not going to go away, so we’re in it for the long haul. His legal team are all experienced litigators, we’re all used to having setbacks, and it’s not for the faint hearted so we’re not going away, we’ll make some decisions in the next few days I’m sure.
RNZ: So you’re going to go for a retrial?
John Langford: We’d have a retrial if that proves necessary. But I’ve heard Mr Craig, I don’t know what his attitude is to having the judge decide the damages, that’s an option but it’s an option that we we’ll need to consider.
Craig had already made it clear that he wasn’t interested in having Judge Katz decide damages (but she strongly hinted with supporting reasons that if she did they would be substantially lower).
Craig also has a recent history of not conceding anything on legal matters and fighting to the point of vexatiousness (not in this case).
RNZ: And so what is it about now, is it about money now?
John Langford: Well, it’s an expensive piece of litigation and it would be nice to get something out it, but I don’t think it’s al about money at all.
See the trouble is with this, what we’ve had really is a setback based on what the judge considered was an excessive award of damages, but no doubt Mr Craig will be claiming complete vindication and claiming a victory.
So we’d like a verdict that sticks, we’d like a verdict where we get judgment entered and if we get the money or don’t get the money that’s another issue.
It’s one thing to get a judgment and it’s another thing to get the money.
You need to get a favourable judgment to get money from damages, and it looks like for that to happen it will have to go to another trial. Both sides will have learnt a lot from the first trial.
And you probably also need to get a favourable judgment to get any costs awarded.
We will have to wait and see what Jordan Williams decides to do from here. He currently has nothing apart from presumably a sizeable legal bill, and his reputation has also been significantly compromised by what was revealed in the trial and what Judge Katz pointed out in her judgment.
Going through a public trial again will be a further challenge, with the certainty of clocking up substantially more costs and exposing his reputation further – any defence is likely to make sure of that – and with a risk of getting less than has been outlayed, or nothing monetary at all.
The full decision is here (PDF, 528KB)
A very good summary from Law Professor Andrew Geddis: How to lose when you win